Happy Birthday to our hero. Edwin Howard Armstrong, father of FM radio, was born 117 years ago today.
In a perfect world, he would have been wealthy, happily married, and more immediately recognized by the average human, but sadly, history didn't shake out that way.
Edwin Howard Armstrong's story is one that I first learned as a media studies undergrad who was captivated by Ken Burns' brilliant "Empire of the Air" radio documentary. "Empire..." tells the story of three radio innovators (Armstrong, Lee De Forest, and David Sarnoff) who saw tremendous potential in the wireless medium, and who nearly forced each other into ruin (and in one case, an early grave) through an endless series of backstabbings and legal squabbles.
I've since watched "Empire..." countless times and can recite lines from it the same way other people summon up zingers from Monty Python or Airplane, but I will always remember that first viewing during my freshman year of school. I was already a serious radio junkie by then and had been doing a weekly show on WPRB for several years. Armstrong's tale seemed to come frontloaded with the same feelings you get when discovering someone else who shares all of your identical passions and interests. How could I have thought I cared about radio before knowing Armstrong? And how the hell could my classmates sleep through the same story that had me sitting bolt upright in my chair, my pulse hammering audibly inside my skull? Sitting in that auditorium was one of the few times in my life that I knew I was in the right place, and I've spent the ensuing years trying to validate that sensation.
Armstrong's story is told elegantly by Burns' documentary, and I wouldn't dream of trying to paraphrase a career of such honor, nuance, and ultimate tragedy here. But it's worth stating that there are only two things in this world that are guaranteed to make me weep like a little schoolgirl, and one of them is the story of Edwin Howard Armstrong. (The other one, as I've recently discovered, is anything having to do with elephants, but never mind about that right now.)
Sadly, I don't have any Armstrong-related audio or video handy, but you can (and should) get "Empire of the Air" on Netflix. There's also more information about him here, here, and here. And one of these days, I'm going to make good on my promise to go visit Armstrong Tower in Alpine, New Jersey. Perhaps it's undue flattery, but I like to think that if Edwin were alive today, he'd still be living in Jersey and would perhaps be an FMU fan.